The Xbox One was never going to save videogames from themselves

If anything, it was putting off the difficult decisions still further.

Microsoft's decision, now aborted, to severely restrict the use of second-hand games on the Xbox One sparked massive criticism – but also its fair share of defenders.

The most common defence was focused on the cost of making so-called AAA titles. Take Penny Arcade Report's Ben Kuchera:

It needs to be made clear, if all the studio closings and constant lay-offs haven't made this explicit: The current economics of game development and sales are unsustainable. Games cost more to make, piracy is an issue, used-games are pushed over new, and players say the $60 cost is too high. Microsoft's initiatives with the Xbox One may solve many of these issues, even if we grumble about it. These changes ultimately make the industry healthier.

But it's a defence which rings hollow. In other industries facing the same problems, massively anti-consumer moves didn't lead to trickle-down benefits; instead, they made it harder for consumers to use their purchasing power to force publishers to give them a better deal. Compare and contrast, for instance, between the movie and music industries. The lack of copy-protection on CDs meant that there had to be a genuine value proposition when it came to buying music digitally, leading directly to the world of Spotify and Last.fm. The same was not true of DVDs, which couldn't be ripped and so presented no real competition with gouging download services. (Yes, this analysis is obviously over-simplistic, but it gets to the kernel of the problem)

Firms do not sit down and decide on a certain level of profit which they want to make, and pass any excess down to the customer. Instead, pricing decisions are made essentially separately from facts of production: the price is set to maximise revenue. That's true even if we accept the assertion in Kuchera's piece that games are getting so expensive that studios can't afford to make them with the revenue they're getting.

But there is one way in which the new model – specifically, one without used game sales – could be beneficial to gamers. Writing for Edge, developer Adrian Chmielarz details one game designer tactic to boost profit:

And, you know, just like salesmen and gamers are great optimizers, so are the developers and publishers. A good few years ago, a mantra was born: “…so they keep the disc in the tray”.

That is… how filler content was born. Far Cry 3 is not a better game because you need two boar hides to craft a simple rucksack item, but it certainly is longer. For some game players, length equals value. But then somehow the same people often do not finish such a game (industry standard is about 25 per cent). They put it back on the shelf, promising themselves that they will finish it one day. Most of the time, they never do. But the important thing for the publishers is: the gamers hold on to the game, they’re not selling it, all is good.

This is how artificial extenders were born. The hardest difficulty is inaccessible on your first play-through not just because the developer wants to stop you from making a mistake. It’s so you replay the game at least one more time and double your play time. And if you don’t care about that? Hey, there are always achievements to collect, right?

In other words, a trend in game design has been to purposefully create games which keep the player from feeling a true sense of fulfilment or closure, because that sense can also cause the player to think they're done with the game.

But at the end of the day, financial motivations only drive the actual games made to a certain extent. Long before "pre-owned" was the bugbear of the industry, interminable collection quests were extending the length of games (I had 150 pokémon in Pokémon Red. I am still proud of this.) but not adding much extra joy to playing them. And even now, as the commercialisation of the gaming world hits new highs, a few big budget games are being released without DLC or artificial extenders – typically by companies like Nintendo, which seem to have an admirable/foolhardy separation between creative and commercial wings.

If commercial pressures can save the video game industry from itself, then they aren't going to come by limiting the freedom of customers. It'll be the exact opposite: only once publishers are forced out of the complacency of knowing that they can carry on going pretty much as they always have done will they start learning the lessons which need to be learned.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.